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Crayfish Catching by California Indians

I like to free dive with snorkel and mask, and often find crayfish, which I’ve caught many times by hand (though I usually let them go). I find crayfish delicious, so I did a little research on the methods the California Indians used to catch and eat them.

Freshwater crayfish were eaten by the Indians of Northwestern California. The Yurok Sometimes caught crayfish by fastening a piece of salmon onto the end of a string tied to a pole. This bait was set in the water and when the crayfish grabbed it, they were pulled in. Instead of salmon, sometimes a ball of grass was attached, to which the claws or legs of the crayfish were entangled as they were pulled out of the water. The Karok used this method but with salmon gills as bait.

The Karok trapped crayfish by tying salmon gills above or in a basket that was set beside or under a rock, then lifting the basket out when the crayfish were feeding on the bait. Another Karok trap was a large, openwork, plate-shaped basket, with a four-foot stick attached to the center to keep the basket horizontal when lowered into a still place in the river. Salmon gills were placed on the basket as bait. Once the crayfish were lured onto the basket, it was lifted out quickly.


Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis), the only remaining native crayfish in California, is critically endangered. It’s endemic to Shasta County, where, before widespread environmental damage, it was caught by the Shasta Indians. Most crayfish in CA now are the introduced, invasive, signal crayfish (P. leniusculus).

The Shasta caught crayfish using the same type of trap, except instead of the four-foot stick, several strings were attached to the basket’s edges, and a stone was laid on it with the bait to weigh it down. This trap was used in about four feet of water in the evening. After 10-15 minutes, it was gently pulled to the surface.

Often, crayfish were simply caught by hand by the Yurok and Karok at the water’s edge. The Tolowa caught them by hand under rocks in streams while people were swimming.

The Karok roasted crayfish in ashes or hot coals till they were deep red. The Tolowa cooked them in ashes or in an earth oven. The Shasta boiled them in a basket with hot rocks.


Kroeber, A. L. and S. A. Barrett. 1960. Fishing among the Indians of Northwestern California. Anthropological Records 21(1):1-210. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

The Bear Doctor


The Bear Doctor was a powerful and deadly shaman feared by the Pomo, Yuki, and Miwok tribes of California Indians.

The bear doctors lived to kill for pleasure and would extort villages, forcing chiefs to pay them to leave their people in peace.

The bear doctor wore a suit of grizzly bear skin reinforced inside with a lining of hard wood sticks (snowbell), all over a suit of armor made of shells, making him virtually immune to arrows or other attacks. It contained water baskets inside, whose sloshing mimicked the sound of the viscera of a real bear. A white oak basketry helmet was fitted to the wearer’s head, and the bear’s head skin was secured over this. When worn, the bear doctor appeared, acted, and sounded just like a real grizzly bear. This suit was said to endow him with the supernatural strength and speed of a bear.

pomo bear doctor suit

















He was helped by male and female assistants, the first whom sang the songs or chants necessary to invoke the power of the bear suit as the shaman danced and as the suit was put on by the bear doctor with the help of the female assistant.

The weapons of the bear doctor were elk horn daggers, obsidian knives, and stone pestles. Sometimes he used a miniature bow that shot tiny “invisible” poisoned arrows. One common poison for arrows was rattlesnake venom, which caused even a tiny wound to rot away and masses of flesh to slough off, usually resulting in death.

Before attacking, the bear doctor stood unconcernedly near the path of his victim, with his back toward him until he was near, whereupon he suddenly whirled around and attacked. This was the method of attack of a real bear.

The bear doctors formed a league together, training apprentices and sometimes working in concert to attack and kill.

For more info see “Pomo Bear Doctors” by S.A. Barrett, 1917.


Methods to Gather Wasps and Bees to Eat

Apidae and Vespidae – bees and wasps

Larvae (and pupae) of wild bees (Andrena spp.), yellow jackets (Dolichovespula spp. And Vespula spp.), hornets, and other wasps (Polistes spp.) were eaten by many tribes, often raw, and considered delicacies (Powers 1877, Essig 1931, Heizer and Elsasser 1980). First, nests were smoked to stupify the adults (Essig 1931).

To locate a yellowjacket nest, the Sierra Miwok would set out (presumably in an open sunny place) a grasshopper leg with a (magenta-colored) dry seed pod of a grass (Holcus lanatus) or a white flower attached (Barrett and Gifford 1933, Lightfoot and Parrish). They waited for a yellowjacket to seize the bait, then followed it to the nest by keeping an eye on the easily-visible seed pod or flower (Barrett and Gifford 1933).

In one method for gathering ground-nesting yellowjackets, a nest was located, then early in the morning before the yellowjackets began flying, a fire was built close to the hole and smoke from pine needles forced down the hole with a fan (Heizer and Elsasser 1980, Lightfoot and Parrish 2009), which the Costanoans made with hawk feathers (Levy 1978). Once the yellowjackets were stupefied, the nest was dug out and carried to a prepared bed of coals (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). The nest was roasted, the dead larvae shaken out into a tray, mashed, then boiled with hot stones (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). This was served with manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) berries or acorn meal (Heizer and Elsasser 1980).

The northeastern Yavapai ate yellowjacket nests (i.e. probably the larvae and pupae along with nest material) (Gifford 1936). The Northern Maidu eagerly sought yellowjacket larvae (probably also the pupae, see Taylor 1975) to eat (Dixon 1905), as did many other tribes.

The European honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) was only introduced in the mid-1800’s (Essig 1934) and its honey was collected by the Wiyot and other tribes who also ate the larvae, sometimes smoking out the adult bees with a damp tule smudge (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009). The small quantities of honey which could be found only in the nests of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and other native wild bees were eaten by the Foothill Yokuts and probably other tribes (Heizer and Elsasser 1980, Jacknis 2004).


Vespula lewisi larvae, pupae, and adults.

Japanese wasp collection method: kill a frog and leave in open, attach a small piece of its meat with a small piece of floss silk. When the wasp arrives and cuts a piece of meat from the frog, people replace this piece with the one having floss-silk attached. When it flies back to the nest the run after by following the floss-silk. The underground nest is smoked with firecrackers and the stunned wasps are collected (FIN 1988 1:2; 2) (FIN 8(3):2).

To find wasp nests, traditional wasp hunters in Japan tie a long silk thread to the waist of a captured adult wasp. Then they follow the silk thread and wasp as it flies back to its nest. Smoke is used to drive the wasp adults from their nests and the larvae are then gathered. (Gordon 1998)

In Java, wasp colonies are cut from branches, enclosed in bag and immersed in hot water to kill adults, larvae and pupae then removed and steamed or fried (Food Insect Newsletter 11(3):3).

Social ground nesting wasps in Japan are colected by placing a small charge of gunpowder into the nest entrance with a long stick and light the fuse. The explosion stuns the wasp and can be collected without stinging. Another method is removing all clothes, quietly approaching the nest, tear it up and remove the larvae. Beekeepers in Sudan are usually naked but for a loincloth and simply flick off bees that land on them. The presence of clothes is said to annoy the bees.

Moldy sugar pine cone hanging from my bookshelf.

Sugar Pine Tree Uses of the California Indians

Pinus lambertiana Dougl. – Sugar Pine

The sugar pine is a titan amongst its august congeners. It is the tallest (70′-200′) and heaviest pine species in the world. It also has the longest pine cones in the world, reaching over two feet long.

It’s range is thick in California and Oregon in the Sierras (reaching Carson City, NV), Northern California mountains, and the Cascades. It’s also found in the coast range of Big Sur, the mountains of Southern California, and into Baja California. Its preferred habitat is slopes in yellow pine forest and red fir forest ( It occurs from 390-9710 ft (, but is more common at higher elevations, about 2500-9000 ft. (Goodrich et al. 1980).

Throughout its range, Indian tribes found the sugar pine tree very useful, even for a pine tree, which are generally species with many edible parts and uses.

The most important resource this species provided were its seeds / pine nuts. These were gathered in the summer (Goodrich et al. 1980). When gathered in sufficient quantity, the large seeds from the long cones are as highly esteemed as those from the Digger pine, Pinus sabiniana (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907). Sugar pine nuts were known to be eaten by Mendocino area Indians, Northern Maidu, Shasta, and Kashaya Pomo (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907, Goodrich et al. 1980). The nuts were eaten fresh or dried for winter (Goodrich et al. 1980). Stored nuts were eaten whole or pounded into a flour and mixed with pinole, a blend of dried and powdered grains and small seeds (Goodrich et al. 1980).

To remove cones from a high tree limb, the Kashaya Pomo used a deer antler lashed to the end of a straight pole (Goodrich et al. 1980). As with other pine species, trees were probably also climbed to cut down branches with cones and shake down cones, in addition to simply picking off the ground.

The pine nuts were steamed in an earth oven by the Shasta (Dixon 1907). A hole was dug, a fire was burned inside it to heat a layer of rocks at the bottom, then the coals and ashes were raked out (Dixon 1907). Then the pine nuts, wrapped in leaves, were placed on the hot rocks (Dixon 1907). Then water was poured in, more hot rocks placed on top, and the whole covered with earth, allowing the oven to steam for several hours (Dixon 1907). The nuts were then dried and stored (Dixon 1907). When wanted to eat, the nuts were pounded fine, winnowed, and made into small cakes (Dixon 1907). Often powdered pine nuts were mixed with powdered salmon (Dixon 1907).

The sap of sugar pine tastes sweet; that is what gave the tree its common name. The sap was eaten and chewed as gum or candy by the Northern Maidu (Dixon 1905), Shasta (Dixon 1907), Kashaya Pomo (Goodrich et al. 1980), and Wintu (Jacknis 2004). It was gathered from spring through fall (Goodrich et al. 1980).

One form of this sap was valued as a medicine. The sugary exudation on partially burned bases of trees was valued for cathartic properties (Chesnut 1902). The sap was also used in making whistles (Goodrich et al. 1980), forming the crucial seal for generating sound. Just as other pine trees, its sap had many different uses as a sealant or mastic, such as hafting obsidian blades to wood handles or arrowheads to a shaft.

Although such a use for this particular species goes unmentioned in ethnographies I have studied so far, the inner bark of all pine trees is edible, and furnishes a easily-gathered, calorie-rich food.

Sugar pine logs were used by the Shasta for making dugout, square-ended canoes (Dixon 1907).

Like many other pine species, the sugar pine boughs and needles were commonly used to cover the floors of dwellings and pad beds (Barrett and Gifford 1951). However, Sugar pine boughs were specifically excluded from use as thatching, despite boughs of other pine tree species being commonly used for thatching (Barrett and Gifford 1951). I can only conjecture a higher ratio of sugar to terpene content compared to other pines makes the sugar pine needles more susceptible to decay, making it inferior thatching material.

This tree was also sometimes host to the Pandora moth (Carolin and Knopf 1968). The Pandora moth caterpillar was a crucial, abundant food of the Paiute and other Sierra Indians.


Barrett, S.A. and E.W. Gifford. 1951. Miwok houses. In The California Indians: a source book. Edited by R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple.

Carolin, V.M. Jr. and J.A.E. Knopf. 1968. The pandora moth. USDA Forest Service Forest Pest Leaflet 114: 1-7.

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Dixon, Roland. B. 1907. The Shasta. American Museum of Natural History Bulletin 17(5).

Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

Jacknis, Ira J (ed.). 2004. Food in California Indian culture. Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

Ants as Native Californian Cuisine

California Indians caught ants by spreading a damp skin or fresh-peeled bark over ant hills, which immediately attracted ants to the surface (Sutton 1988). When the skin or bark was covered with ants, it was carefully removed and shaken into a container where they were confined until dead, and then they were sun-dried and stored (Bodenheimer 1951).

The Nisenan and Achumawi were known to eat ants (Olmsted and Stewart 1978, Wilson and Towne 1978). Mono Lake Paiute ate the larvae of ants (Sutton 1988). Ant eggs, pupae, larvae, and adults are all edible and eaten by many aboriginal cultures worldwide (Bodenheimer 1951), thus it is likely the California Indians ate all these life stages.

Surprise Valley Paiute gathered ants “early in the morning when they were all bunched on the top of the hill” (Sutton 1988). Since ants carry their pupae to the top of the mound in the morning when the sun hits it, this may suggest the Paiute were aware of this activity and exploited it to easily collect the pupae, which are probably the preferred ant food. Alternatively, the gathering of ants was conducted in the early morning since they were less active then. Ants were frequently collected during the frozen winter (Sutton 1988), perhaps for the same reason, or since other food was scarce at the time.

Some Indians dug out ants, larvae, and pupae (the latter two being probably erroneously called eggs), and winnowed them to boil alone or with other foods (Sutton 1988). Ants were sometimes ground into flour for storage (Sutton 1988). Ants were preferred even to grasshoppers by the Northern Paiute since they contained more fat (Sutton 1988). Ants were killed with live coals then eaten dry, or stored to later thicken soups (Sutton 1988).

The larvae and adults of carpenter ants (Camponotus spp) were enjoyed by California Indians, according to John Muir (1972). The heads of the adults were bitten off and spat out and the “tickly acid body” eaten with enjoyment (Muir 1972). Carpenter ants were dug out of their nest early in the morning when it was still cold by the Western Shoshone (Sutton 1988), perhaps allowing gathering with fewer stings. The ants were winnowed from the soil with a basket, killed with hot coals in a parching tray, and boiled into a mush (Sutton 1988). These ants are very large: probably the reason the Indians preferred them. However, their nests harbor fewer individuals than those of smaller ants.

A few weeks ago, I collected a few dozen carpenter ant workers and drones. I broke apart the their wood log nest, and put down wet paper towels over the swarm, which they clung to, biting. I then flicked them off the paper towels into a cooler with a few inches of cold water, where they drowned or were cooled into immobility. I fried them in a pan with a few drops of oil on medium for about a minute, then ate them whole and plain. The workers have a great lime flavor and a nice crunch. The drones don’t have that zingy flavor (lacking formic acid glands and stingers), but taste mild and nutty. Overall, they were a great snack that was easy to collect.

Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus spp.) are found in the deserts of Southern California, and are known to have been eaten by Southwestern US Indians and Mexican Indians (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). Specialized “nurse” or “replete” workers of this ant, living in special chambers of the nest, store “honey,” or a very sweet solution, in their greatly engorged abdomens to regurgitate to other ants in times of famine (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). These nurse ants were collected by Indians and eaten or alcohol or medicine (Bodenheimer 1951). I wouldn’t try to go dig up a nest without some serious expertise on their nest structure though. One professional entomologist in Arizona spent 12 hours digging an 8 foot trench in the desert to get just a few handfuls of repletes! If anything, this testifies to the supreme ecological knowledge of hunter-gatherers, especially regarding the hymenopterous (bees, wasps, and ants) nesting and reproductive biology.


Bodenheimer, F.S. 1951. Insects as human food. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Muir, J. 1972. My first summer in the Sierra. Norman S. Berg, Publisher, Sellanraa, GA.

Olmsted, D.L. and O.C. Stewart. 1978. Achumawi. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 228. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Sutton, M.Q. 1988. Insects as food: aboriginal entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press anthropological papers: no. 33.

Wilson, N.L. and A.H. Towne. 1978. Nisenan. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 390. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Deer Hunting Traditions of the Apache

The following notes are from this book:

People called Apache. Mails, Thomas, E. 1974. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Chiricahua women hunted when necessary, but it was a man’s responsibility.

The Apache practiced fasting before hunting deer. They would not eat onions or put on anything aromatic. Such taboos were the norm among American Indians, and worked (including fasting) to greatly reduce the smell of the hunter that the deer may otherwise detect. No baskets brought along for a hunt, since that signaled overconfidence.

The Apache hunted alone or in groups. Mostly they hunted with bow and arrow. Sometimes mounted men or relays of footrunners ran deer till they were exhausted, when the men then roped and strangled them. Running deer negatively affected the taste of the meat, so it was not a preferred method.
Deer head and antelope head masks were used for stalking, but not elk-head masks, since the hunters did not think the latter necessary. Perhaps elk are wiser, or probably just less friendly to strange elk. The deer heads were filled out with grass and the skin was sewn and tied to fit the head and stay on. Clothing or covering the color of the deer was worn, and while stalking, the hunter acted like a grazing deer. Deer were approached from downwind. If they were in the open, the hunters crawled long distances while keeping brush in front of them to hide. The deer were called by making a whistling sound through a leaf held horizontally along the lips. This may be in imitation of the bleating of a fawn, as some California Indians practiced.

Deer were sometimes hunted by the Apache after heavy snows and cold drove deer down into the flatlands.

The Apache cultivated corn, pumpkins, beans, melons, and potatoes, so were well aware that a field of half-grown corn became an excellent hunting ground when deer and other animals were attracted to the produce.

The Mescalero snared deer by hanging a string of head nooses along the deers’ favorite trails.
The kill was skinned and cut up immediately. This was done by traditional rules as where to begin and ceremonial gestures to use. The head and hoofs were brought home to assure future luck in the hunt. These were also valuable parts, the brain being mainly used to tan buckhides, hoofs used for glue and rattles, and both had many other uses. The hides were tanned or left as rawhide, either way with hair on or off, and used for moccasins, robes, blankets, saddlebags, and many other articles. The Chiricahua used thread from sinew along the backbone and leg bones of large animals, preferably deer, but also horses and steers. Sinew from alongside the backbone and hind legs were used by the Apache for bowstrings. The ends of two or three wet pieces were spliced and stuck together to form a long string, which was doubled over and the two parts were twisted  by putting a stick through the looped end. The finished string was placed on the bow and its length was adjusted as necessary. Awls were made from wood and from the sharpened leg bone of a deer. Deer’s blood was mixed with poisonous plants or spit and allowed to rot, then placed on arrowheads as a arrow poison. These are a handful of the dozens of other uses for deer parts.
Meat was jerked (preserved by drying into jerky) by cutting into long thin strips with the grain, then spreading it over bushes such as mesquite to dry. When dry, it was pounded until it was compact and stored in cowhide bags.

One method to cook deer meat was to roast it on a spit hanging over a dry cedar fire. Venison stew was also made.

The Chiricahua made acorns into a kind of pemmican. The acorn meal was mixed with ground dried deer meat and fat, then rolled into little balls that stored all winter and served as high-quality nutrition emergency food for trips.

In 1980 it was estimated that 50% of California was covered by deer, at a density of about 13 per square mile (Hiezer and Elsasser 1980). Just harvesting 1/10th of these deer, or 125,000 out of 1,250,000, would provide about a little more than a pound of venison per person per day (Hiezer and Elsasser 1980). [Ref: Natural World of the California Indians. UC Berkeley Press.]

See other recent posts about deer hunting:

Hunters Take Aim for Conservation

Deer Drive Hunt Method of California Indians

My colored pencil drawing of a deer fawn standing in water.

Deer Drive Hunt Method of California Indians

It’s open deer season for about another month here in California, and many hunters are afield trying to shoot a buck. I just spent 5 days stillhunting for deer (plus squirrels and mountain quail) with my bow and arrows. I only saw a few does, so plan on an ambush-style hunt next time. Common modern methods include sitting in a blind at an area deer are known to visit, stillhunting/stalking, luring with calls, decoys, and scents, and perhaps most effective of all, group drive hunts.

The California Indians employed all this methods, and had many more elaborate and clever ways of capturing deer. They often disguised themselves as deer, taxidermied head with antlers and all, imitating a grazing deer while approaching, getting as close as inside the herd if necessary before shooting several before they could all escape. Such a method is risky now since other hunters are liable to see and shoot you. The Indians usually knew everyone in the area and when and where they were hunting, and were also probably more able to distinguish a imitator from a real deer. The Indians also used snares to catch deer, sometimes made from the fine edges of the leaves of Iris douglasiana.

Group drive hunts of many varieties were the norm among California Indians, and such hunts probably served to provide the majority of the deer meat and other products throughout the year for most tribes. Modern hunters do group drive hunts; they post half the hunters in a line at a good shooting spot, then the other half walks spread out in a line, driving deer toward the posted line. The Indians often did this with the posted line on the opposite side of a creek, shooting the deer as they crossed the water and were in the open and vulnerable while swimming. Shooting animals near watering areas is illegal in California now, but other natural or artificial formations can assist in a drive hunt. The Indians in the Mendocino County area of California used a long fence of maple bark to form a trap line to direct deer to a central spot to be killed by hidden hunters there.

The inner bark of bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) was used to make a deer trap, being cut into bands about an inch wide, and fastened together for over a mile long into a continuous roll, which was then carried to the appropriate spot, and the band strung on stakes about four feet high to create a very long V-shaped fence, with the apex extending into a valley and the ends terminating at the mouth of two adjacent canyons (Chesnut 1902). This location was chosen for its excellent browse with deer known to feed there (Chesnut 1902). When the fence was strung taut, and deer were feeding inside the V, Indians disguised like animals, and each carrying brittle sticks, a piece of smoldering oak, and a bone dagger were stationed at the end of the lines and in the middle, and some then stealthily approached the deer from the open part of the V (Chesnut 1902). If deer came near the band of maple, one of the Indians would shake the band, frightening the deer back, and if deer attempted to pass an approaching man he would break a stick, or expose the glowing oak bark (Chesnut 1902). In this manner, the deer were corralled into the apex of the V, where the Indians would suddenly jump up and kill the deer with bone daggers (Chesnut 1902).

A maple band seems easily replaced with metal or plastic banding that similarly made an alarming noise when rattled. Since making a long band of inner bark of maple is the most time-consuming part of this method, modern hunters might profitably mimic this method to legally hunt deer. Of course the bone daggers would need to be replaced with bow or firearms legal for taking deer.

The deer provided a principal meat source for California Indians, and provided bones, antlers, hide, sinew, brains, and hoofs to make dozens of essential daily tools of the Indians. Colonists stove to extirpate all predators they encountered, so in current times, deer overpopulation is a major problem throughout California and the US. Hunters, especially deer hunters, are the number one group of (financial) supporters of conservation in the US. So do your job to help conserve more public lands such as our National Forests and BLM lands and keep the deer populations at healthy numbers for them and the ecosystem by buying a hunting license and deer tags and feeding your family the healthiest and cheapest meat in the world!